Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood, by Joachim Fest
What would it be like to grow up in Germany during the rise of the Nazis? Joachim Fest’s memoir takes us on that journey, year by terrifying year. One of five children born into a household of conservative and morally committed parents, Fest relays to us how an otherwise happy childhood was impacted by the Nazis, with the secret meetings of like-minded friends, the gradual loss of individual freedoms, and the dire life that awaited a family whose father was forbidden to work for his insufficient embrace of the government of the Third Reich.
Fest’s father was a firm Catholic, and unlike so many other Germans, he found no room in his beliefs for the ugliness and hate that the National Socialists fomented through their propaganda, lies, laws, restrictions, and suspicions. For his moral stand, he was cast out of his job as a civil servant and denied further work. Rather than compromise his principles, he held firm and thus taught his admiring children that a higher moral principle was far more important than material comforts.
Despite the family’s descent into hardship, Fest enjoyed a happy childhood, full of lively political discussions, fascinating family friends (many of whom died at the hands of the Third Reich), and a rich schooling both in the classroom and around the dinner table that Fest carefully delineates for us, as he expands his reading tastes from the likes of Karl May to Goethe.
As World War II moved forward and Germany began to suffer staggering defeats, Fest reached the tender age of seventeen and thus found himself in the military. Eventually captured by the Americans, he spent the final months of the war in a POW camp. Upon his release, he journeyed back to Berlin, where he found a city destroyed but still full of life, now with the joyous sounds of American jazz everywhere. Still, it is a frightening tale, full of woe. That his family survived more or less in tact is a miracle. That their morals remained firmly in place by the book’s end is not at all surprising.
For a look at German society first under the Weimar Republic and then unbelievably under the National Socialists, turn the pages of this memoir to find a rich if bitterly sad interpretation of German life in the 20th century.
D. L. S.